“You know, I think that man is insane.”
“More than likely,” Dolph agreed cheerfully. “But if Conn thinks he’s good, he knows his stuff. That’s worth a bit of insanity in a wizard.” Which was, undeniably and inevitably, true. Pretty much anything is worth a bit of insanity in a wizard, in fact, because pretty much everyone with magic is at least a bit insane. Hell, even I’m absolutely out of my mind by any ordinary standard, and I barely qualify as having magic at all.
“What clan is he, do you know?” I asked conversationally as we reached the car.
“Wait a second, none?” I’d never met a serious mage before, but based on everything I knew it was vanishingly rare for them not to have a clan affiliation. Mages tend to specialize, meaning that it can often take several of them to accomplish a single task. Between that and the fact that they have so much competition from things like werewolves and vampires, almost all mages end up joining clans of like-minded individuals.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. They have a lot of autonomy. Conn rules his werewolves with an iron fist, and Twilight Princes tend not to be much gentler with their subjects. Even the vampires have some sort of council; I don’t know any details about it, largely because vampires give me the creeps, but I understand they act as an executive body of some kind. Whatever the case, all of them have some kind of government. Mages don’t. The clans act more like a fraternity; you can join one, or a dozen, depending on your degree of interest. Some of them are massive, and wield enormous political power; others are based around niche interests, and number their adherents in the dozens.
But not to be a member of any of them? That was a lot more unusual. Without allies backing you up, even a mage is easy prey for more organized enemies. There just weren’t very many mages who could handle that kind of threat on their own. If Alexander was one of them, he was either scary strong, or he had a nigh-miraculous gift for not making enemies. Considering the infamously hazardous nature of mage politics, I wasn’t sure which of those would be more impressive.
Dolph shrugged. “None that he admits to, and Father hasn’t seen any sign that he’s lying. So what now?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “It’s nice to know that I haven’t totally lost it, but I’m not sure how much we really gained here. I suppose we pretty much have to wait for the next corpse to show up.”
He frowned. “I don’t like this. We can’t keep reacting to this thing forever, and there are only so many deaths we can hide from the cops.”
“Agreed. But we still don’t know how to track it down, so what else can we do?”
“Wish I knew. We still haven’t caught a scent, and at this point I doubt we’re going to.”
I sighed. “I guess I’ll call Aiko then, make sure she’s got the current version of the demon-werewolf theory.”
Dolph glanced at me. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that, actually. Are you really sure you want to bring her into this, Winter? I mean, bringing a stranger into pack business is bad enough; a kitsune, well….”
I frowned. “I don’t know. I mean, normally I’d agree with you, but it sounds like she’s already in this deeper than I am. Besides which, I sorta like her, batshit crazy or not.”
“Granted,” he allowed. “And considering how few people you like, that’s a fairly impressive statement. But do you have any proof that she’s telling the truth?”
“Not really. But…” I trailed off, reaching for the right words. “I just didn’t get the evil vibe off of her, you know? Dangerous, sure, unreliable, crazy, I’ll give you all that. But not evil. Not even particularly malicious. And from what I’ve read, that’s pretty typical for a kitsune. They might screw you over, but they’re hardly depicted the way demons are.”
“True. And at this point I think we can say with some confidence that she’s not our killer.” He sighed. “I guess I agree with you, then. At least she’s one of the kami. The Pack has a good relationship with her people, so hopefully we can pass this off without looking weak for accepting help.”
You know that feeling when there’s a word on the tip of your tongue? Where you know the answer, and you know you know it, but you just can’t quite bring it to mind?
That’s what I felt like when I got home. I called Aiko as I’d said I would, and managed to convey the important bits of my current theory as to what was killing people. She seemed willing to play along with the idea of a demon-possessed werewolf with multiple personality disorder who had undergone a soul-transplant operation, although that might have been the equivalent of agreeing with your senile uncle who thinks he invented the question mark. Or, hell, maybe it was just solidarity in insanity.
I had pretty much called off work indefinitely—which would put a serious dent in my paycheck, but at the moment that was pretty low on my priorities list—so after I called her I went back to trying to figure out what it was that I thought I should remember.
Oddly enough, it didn’t feel like something Alexander had said. It was more like he’d reminded me of something I already knew. It hadn’t been to do with the relative strengths and weaknesses of demonic magic, it was something more basic than that. In fact, it almost felt like the really important thing had nothing to do with the demon….
And then I realized what had been bothering me. A few days ago, when he first got into town, Dolph had said something about there not being any reason to suspect a werewolf, because all that we’d found definitive evidence for was a demon.
Why had it occurred to Dolph that it might not be a werewolf? Because the evidence was circumstantial. Why would there be circumstantial evidence if it wasn’t a werewolf? Because something was pretending to be one.
But that was ridiculous in the context of what we already knew, right? I mean, a werewolf can’t pretend to be a werewolf, it would be pointless….
And then it occurred to me why it might not.
I’ve always thought that the idea of the Eureka moment was ridiculous, a gross oversimplification of a slower and more boring process, but that’s what happened to me right then. I saw, quite suddenly, where I’d gone wrong and, unthinkingly, led everyone else wrong as well.
We’d been going about it all wrong.
“Aiko? It’s Winter. Listen, can you answer a question for me?”
“That depends. Does it involve how long it takes to strangle a duck, and will it explain why you’ve called me twice in the past five minutes?”
I had to smile, regardless of how inappropriate it was at the moment. “No to the ducks, but I might be able to work in an explanation.”
She sighed theatrically. “Well that’s a shame, ’cause I was looking forward to strangling some ducks to find out. But I guess I can do that some other time, so you might as well ask your question.”
“You remember your friend that died? The one you told me about?”
“What kind of stupid-ass question is that? You think I’m going to forget something like that in a couple of months?” Good to know that there were, in fact, things which would make a kitsune truly angry.
“No, no. But I just realized that there was something I didn’t know. Your friend, was he also a kitsune?”
“No.” Aiko sounded more sad than angry now. I was starting to seriously wonder whether she had bipolar disorder or something, or whether that was even a meaningful thing for a kitsune.
“All right. Sorry to bring it up—”
“He was a leprechaun. Now what does that have to do with anything?”
“I’ll tell you when I find out.” She hung up without saying goodbye, which was probably better than I should expect after how phenomenally insensitive I’d been.
I couldn’t bring myself to feel too sorry about it, though. I was too caught up in the excitement of thinking that I might finally be making some progress on tracking this thing down.
I’m not a cop. Not a detective, not even a private eye. Neither is Kyra, and I’m pretty sure that even Dolph hadn’t had a job in the investigative field at any point in his long life. Most werewolves don’t. It might seem like the ability to track and identify people by scent and confront dangerous individuals without any fear might be useful in those professions. That’s because they would be. But what people tend not to think of is how difficult it is to get the courts to accept those explanations. Most werewolves don’t have the patience to put up with the ensuing bullshit.
That lack of experience was probably why it took us so long to look at the victims rather than the killer. In all fairness, though, we started off thinking it was just a random newly-changed wolf with no control, and as a result we hadn’t been looking for a motive. Later we knew otherwise, but we’d still approached it in the same way. Now I was thinking differently.
There wasn’t a geographic pattern. I was willing to bet there wasn’t an obvious relationship between the victims, either, or the police would have caught it a long time ago. They’re actually pretty good at their jobs, and I didn’t think they would have taken as long as we had to examine who was killed.
But there are angles no police force would have thought to take. For example, I was pretty sure none of the cops knew that the first victim had been a friend of Aiko’s. Even if they did, they wouldn’t have understood the significance.
I did. You see, there just aren’t that many kitsune in the Rocky Mountain region. There are a whole lot of people in Colorado Springs. The chances that they would overlap were fairly small.
Of course, it might still be coincidence. Maybe.
There were a number of deaths in the middle that I didn’t have any information on, so I skipped ahead to the first one I’d seen. Which one had that been, anyway? Number six? That felt right.
I hadn’t paid too much attention to it. There had been blood, of course. No damage to the room, I remembered that. Defensive wounds.
Wait a second. I’d smelled magic there. At the time I’d attributed it to werewolf—werewolves do sometimes leave a trail of magic, particularly when they’re drawing actively on the wolf. But I hadn’t smelled that signature anywhere else, so it couldn’t have been the demon.
Which meant that it must have been the victim. Who must therefore have had some kind of magic.
The next one, I recalled, had been the woman. There wasn’t anything I immediately remembered as having stood out about it, and I was forced to go back over what I remembered in search of whatever tiny clues I might have seen without realizing just how important they were.
Let’s see. The body was reported by a Peeping Tom. No, wait, he didn’t see the body. He just saw the door open. Because, I thought, he didn’t spy on her. She was up too late for him.
The building hadn’t felt lived in. The body had carried the demonic residue, which had overwhelmed my memory of it, but now that I thought about it there had been some odd things about the corpse itself. It had had a strange smell, not quite blood but very similar, well below the range in which a human nose would have detected it. The spinal cord had been severed and the heart removed.
There are only so many reasons to remove something’s heart and cut off its head.
Looking back on it like that, I wasn’t entirely sure how I had missed it the first time. But somehow I was very confident that, if I had spent a bit more time exploring the house, I would have found a windowless room underground somewhere. The sort of place a vampire might feel at home. Staying up all night was a coincidence; even the pattern of injuries was similar enough to the others that it hadn’t stood out, and the almost-blood smell wasn’t specific to vamps. Between them, though, I felt fairly confident about my conclusion.
One victim being a member of the supernatural community is coincidence. Even two might occur by accident. When you have three, within a matter of months, well. I don’t like math, but even I can do the odds on something like that.
I’d been trying to give Enrico time to come to grips with what he’d seen gradually. Just now, though, my need for information outweighed any personal concerns. If I pulled this off, maybe I could achieve distinction by being the first crime-fighting vigilante whose signature weapon was a cell phone.
“Hey, Enrico? I need another favor….”
About an hour later, Kyra and I pulled up in front of Christopher’s house. He lived in a big house, almost a mansion, tucked up among the foothills in the southwestern part of the city. It was a behemoth, expensive beyond belief and hell to heat.
It was also necessary so that the pack had a place to call its own. It’s back to that territorial imperative. Theoretically the entirety of Colorado Springs is the pack’s territory, but in practice they aren’t exactly the only group with a claim on it. The house and its grounds, on the other hand, belonged solely to them. Christopher had inherited it from Roland; it had been one of the few sane purchases that man had made.
Kyra’s car looked about as out of place in that neighborhood as I did. Particularly next to Dolph’s shiny rental. Even as she parked, Aiko pulled in behind us.
“Hi, Winter,” she called, not bothering to lock the car behind her. Understandable, because anyone stupid or unlucky enough to steal from a werewolf Alpha was likely to get exactly what they deserved. “And I presume this is your werewolf friend?”
“Yes, of course,” I said hastily, making brief introductions on the way up the front steps.
Predictably enough, we found Dolph and Christopher in the kitchen. That’s usually a good bet for finding werewolves. The remnants of a simple meal—turkey sandwiches, if you’re curious—were scattered across the table. It was remarkably plain for such an extravagant house, a battered metal table that had been cheap when it was new.
The werewolves sitting at it didn’t look significantly better. Christopher looked like he hadn’t slept in days. He probably hadn’t, actually; recent events must have been even harder on him than me. Dolph wasn’t showing it as much, but he wasn’t exactly a picture of well-rested health either.
The room seemed like a sort of embodiment of quiet desperation, horror frozen into a disturbingly mundane tableaux.
So naturally I walked right into it without an invitation, shoved the cheap plates aside, slapped down a couple sheets of paper, and sat down on the cheap wooden chair. “We got played,” I said without preamble.
Dolph glanced at me. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“We got played,” I said again. “This bastard’s had us chasing the wrong lead this whole time.”
Christopher raised one eyebrow. “Gosh, I never would have guessed it. What a priceless epiphany you’ve had now.” Good to know he felt good enough to be sarcastic; I was worried for a minute there.
“This is the info on the first victim,” I said. “Name of Gregory Cook. Age forty-two, white, male, Anglican. Worked as a dishwasher.” I’d been right; the records I’d eventually managed to get out of Enrico had been incredibly detailed.
“How enlightening. In what way does any of that matter?”
“He was also a leprechaun,” Aiko said emphatically. All of their statistics had matched hers, although obviously they had also been an elaborate lie.
Dolph froze. “Could be a coincidence,” he said, although he didn’t sound like he really believed it.
“Maybe,” I said excitedly. “But look at this. Second victim. Elizabeth McDonald, female, twenty-nine.”
“Wait a second,” Kyra interrupted. “I knew her. She started at Pryce’s last year.”
“Exactly. I don’t know what she was, but I think we can make some guesses. Third death was Eva Schmidt, a Catholic woman twenty-nine years old. Now I don’t have any idea who she was, but apparently at the time of death they’re pretty sure she was in bed with victim number four, Jack Christenson. As it happens I knew Jack, and he was a fairly decent sorcerer.”
“You think there’s a connection there?” Dolph mused.
“Well it seems a bit ridiculous to be coincidence, doesn’t it? So Kyra, you remember the first corpse you brought me in to look at? Apparently his name was Richard Angelo. Anybody heard of him?”
All I got was a whole bunch of blank looks. I sighed. “Yeah, me neither. But I smelled magic on the scene and I’m pretty sure it didn’t come from the demon, so he wasn’t a normal human, I can say that for sure. Anyway, the next one was the woman up on the north end, name of Janet Smith. I’m guessing she was a vampire.”
Dolph immediately looked at Aiko, who shrugged, while Kyra looked to Christopher for confirmation. He shrugged, too, and said, “I don’t know much about local vamps. Demon coulda killed a dozen of ’em and I wouldn’t know.”
I did mention that they don’t get along, right? Not that most preternatural critters do, but werewolves and vampires seem to have an especially bad relationship. Like, homicidal rage and turf wars bad. Things weren’t actually violent in this city, but they weren’t friendly, either.
“So that leaves two more. The last person it attacked was me, and I think we can all agree that qualifies as attempting to murder another nonhuman. Before that was Ryan Miller, fifty-one year old white male. Unfortunately I couldn’t detect anything about him through the stink in that house, marking possibly the first time an investigation was derailed by poor housekeeping—”
I broke off because Kyra and Dolph were both staring at me. Actually—I turned to check—so was Aiko, making that everybody who’d actually been there. Eventually, Kyra cleared her throat. “Ah, Winter, you know I would usually defer to your greater experience and whatnot, but that house smelled fine. And I should know considering I was in fur at the time.”
That was insane. I could remember smelling it, mildew and rotting garbage. There was no way on earth Kyra—or Dolph, or probably Aiko either—could ever have mistaken it.
But now that I thought about it, they had been awfully surprised when I reacted to the smell. I could see them being stoic enough not to gag, but being surprised when I did seemed a bit farfetched.
Which meant that it hadn’t been a real smell. I did point out that my mind interprets magic physically, remember? The only hard part is when you don’t realize something isn’t as physical as you think it is.
“Well, that solves that problem then. I think we can guess that whatever magic Ryan was doing, it was pretty ugly.”
Dolph grunted thoughtfully. “You realize what that means, right? He has to be targeting them specifically. He must have timed it to the full moon just so we’d assume it was a new wolf and not pay attention to the victims.”
“Not only that,” Aiko said quietly. “You notice there aren’t any werewolves on that list?”
“Maybe he still feels some loyalty to his own kind,” Christopher suggested.
The kitsune laughed. “Not likely. Not only did he keep you from finding out about it, he made sure everybody in town hates you right now. From where they’re standing, this is obviously a werewolf, making it your responsibility. For you not to do anything about it isn’t going to make you any friends.”
Nobody had much to say after that. What Aiko had said was both obviously true and incredibly depressing. After a long, awkward moment Christopher offered us…whatever meal was appropriate, I was sorta losing track of time by now…and of course we accepted. It turned out to be leftovers haphazardly thrown together out of the fridge, not unlike most of my meals in that regard.
Alphas don’t normally eat leftovers. For that matter, why would Dolph and Christopher have been in here? This room, with its battered furniture and plain appearance, hardly seemed like the sort of place you’d find two powerful, dominant werewolves.
Dolph I could understand; I’d spent enough time around him in North Dakota that I had some idea of how eccentric he could be. Christopher was another matter.
It seems odd to consider, but this was probably the longest I’d spent in his company, ever. Always before when I’d thought of him, he’d been sort of a placeholder. He was Kyra’s Alpha, and that was the only way I regarded him. So maybe it was natural that I’d thought of him as being pretty much like any other Alpha out there. A good Alpha and a decent person—thus making him a hell of a lot better than Roland, right there—but otherwise unremarkable.
Now that I’d seen his house I thought maybe I’d been misjudging him. I tend to put quite a bit of importance on people’s furniture—absurd, I know, but then it is the closest thing I have to a profession. The funny thing about it is that you can often tell a lot about a person like that. Roland, for example, always had to have the high ground. I saw this house when he owned it, one time, and you could tell just by looking at the layout what kind of a person he was. Every room had exactly one comfortable piece of furniture, and I think we can all guess who used it. Other than that, everything had been built to impress. You know the kind of thing I mean—lots of needlessly elaborate decor, furniture that looks incredible but feels like crap, everything carefully arranged. I could go on, and I only saw it once.
Christopher hadn’t changed any of the layout or structural aspects, but the house felt like a completely different place with him as Alpha. The building was designed around one large central room, which we’d walked through to get here. When Roland had been Alpha that room had been centered around a literal freaking throne.
These days it looked…well, a bit like my house might if expanded to fill the space. Lots of comfortable-looking furniture, couches and bean bags scattered seemingly at random, oriented vaguely toward the fireplace. The paintings and tapestries had mostly been taken down and replaced with a truly remarkable variety of posters. I was willing to bet Christopher hadn’t chosen most of them. In fact, something made me think any member of the pack who wanted to could probably hang one. The place felt like a combination lounge and college dorm.
This room, although completely different, said more or less the same thing. A fairly small kitchen, with furniture and appliances that had obviously seen a lot of use. I was willing to bet once again that the kitchen was open for use by any of the pack who wanted it.
Alphas are generally egoistic, maybe even self-centered. In my experience the best Alphas are those who put the pack’s priorities first, but even with them there’s always this sense that they’re aware of their own importance. Conn, maybe, doesn’t give me that impression—but you’re always aware that he’s the one in charge. It’s not rudeness on his part, or even assertion. It’s just that both parties assume that in the end, he’s going to make the decisions. Every Alpha I’d ever seen worked like that; it’s just how they are.
Christopher was willing to let us argue and come up with our own plans, even willing to take a back seat in the process. He set up his own house more as a gathering place for his wolves than a home for himself. Even when he was using it, he’d chosen this room rather than a more extravagant or comfortable setting. In all, he didn’t seem at all the way I expected an Alpha to be.
On the other hand, when all this was over and if we both survived, he did seem like the kind of person it might be worth getting to know.
I ended up riding home with Aiko, largely because it was a bit too far for even me to want to walk. Kyra wanted to talk to Christopher about something, and Aiko had to go back that way anyway.
It was actually a pretty nice ride, all things considered. I suck at small talk and she seemed disinterested. Either that or she was too busy struggling not to rear-end somebody for laughs; she certainly came close enough to doing so, several times. Of course, the downside of this was that instead I was exposed to her taste in music, which turned out to be even more broad than mine. I don’t think I ever want to know where she got the song of gangster rap set to Mozart’s “Ode to Joy.” Played on a xylophone.
We made it home alive, though, and…I was going to say sane, but you know. I really can’t, because I probably don’t qualify and Aiko was either loonier than a drunk raccoon or such a good actor it qualified as a mental disorder.
I was expecting her to kick me out at the curb—possibly literally—but she actually came in with me. I wasn’t quite sure why, but it seemed rude to ask her not to.
She’d been looking somewhat dubious for several blocks by that time. When she saw the interior of the house, she pursed her lips and looked around for a moment before actually going in. She didn’t actually say anything, of course, but it’s remarkable how audible a well-executed smirk can be.
“So I think you maybe owe me an explanation or two.”
So that was what this was about. “Why’d you wait this long to ask?” I said, genuinely curious.
She shrugged. “Pretty clear everybody else already knew. It didn’t seem polite to make you feel awkward in front of them. Now quit trying to change the subject.”
“Um…thanks, I guess. What did you want explained?”
She looked at me suspiciously, then seemed to realize that I was serious and rolled her eyes. “Come on. I know detecting magic isn’t a normal werewolf trait.”
I frowned. “But I already told you I’m not a werewolf.”
She waited a second, then said, “And you were telling the truth about it?” in a tone of surprise more appropriate for someone discovering that their six-year-old nephew wasn’t lying about having found a winning lottery ticket.
“What? Why would I lie? I mean, it’s not like I’d gain much from concealing it.”
“Granted,” she acknowledged. “But remember I’m a kitsune. I grew up around people who’d tell you the sky was yellow just for the hell of it. So if you’re not a werewolf, what are you? And how did you get so chummy with them?”
So then, of course, I had to tell her the whole story. Again. I was seriously considering putting this shit on tapes or something, as many times as I’d been repeating myself lately.
Somewhat to my surprise, I found myself telling her the whole story. Not the limits of my magic—I liked her, but I wasn’t quite insane enough to trust a strange kitsune that far. I went ahead and told her all about my mother, though, and then I started talking about my childhood, my life among the werewolves. It was oddly cathartic, maybe because I didn’t have any messy emotional connection with her to get in the way.
When I was finished, Aiko sat for a moment and then whistled softly. “Sucks to be you. Nice story, though.”
“So does that answer your question?”
“Yeah, I think so.” She sipped her tea meditatively. (What? I’m not a complete barbarian. I couldn’t pull off a formal ceremony, but I could at least provide tea.) “So do you think we can pull this off? I mean, even if we catch him, sounds like he’s all right in a fight. You’d have to be pretty badass to take Greg out.” I’d been hearing a lot of names recently; it took me a moment to realize that Greg must be her leprechaun friend who’d been killed.
“I’m not sure,” I admitted. “I’ve never seen anything that fast. What about you?”
She shrugged. “Throw enough bodies at a problem and it goes down. I doubt he’s good enough to kill a whole freaking werewolf pack. Especially not with a kitsune and a…you, for lack of a better word, playing backup.”
“You’re planning on being there, then?” That might be a lot of help. Kitsune aren’t combat specialists in most of the stories, but they can still pull some pretty sweet stunts.
She grinned. “A chance to kill a demon and a werewolf without getting in trouble? No way am I going to miss that. So are you and the werewolf chick an item?”
I blinked, because there aren’t all that many rapid changes in subject that can beat that. “You mean Kyra? No. I’m not interested in dating a werewolf.”
“Oh come on, Winter. Don’t you think that’s a bit prejudiced? I mean, she—”
“Also,” I interrupted off-handedly, “she’s a lesbian.”
It was Aiko’s turn to be caught flat-footed. “Wow. I wasn’t expecting that.” She paused, and then chuckled. “You did that just to mess with me, didn’t you? Nice job.”
“Pretty much,” I admitted easily. “Although it is true, if you were wondering.”
“I wasn’t, actually. Lying that well takes practice, and you don’t seem like the type.”
I snorted. “So am I supposed to be complimented by your insult now, or insulted by your compliment?”
She grinned. “Both, of course.” She set her teacup down and stood up. “Well, thanks for answering my questions. I should probably quit bothering you now, though.”
“Oh, it was no bother,” I assured her, seeing her to the door.
And, once she had driven away, I realized with some surprise that it had been true. That was strange, because my territorial urges (no, they’re not exclusive to werewolves. You have them too, you just don’t show them as much) should have been screaming at me, with the presence of a near-stranger in my home. Especially so soon after a demon-werewolf thing tried to kill me in an alley.
Huh. I wondered if I should be pleased or worried by that.